Category Archives: Buddha’s Brain

The Middle Way: Working with Neurological Diversity

Continuing our discussion of the Middle Way, we recognized that there is no one Middle Way for everyone. Rick Hanson’s book Buddha’s Brain talks about neurological diversity, the wide range of tendencies of temperament we were born with, influenced by our culture and life experiences. Understanding this natural variation provides us with the opportunity to more compassionately accept our way of being in the world without beating ourselves up about it, and to be more compassionate with others who clearly operate differently.

But, Hanson also says that we can work with our brains, through concentration practices, to develop skills to find more balanced, less extreme neurological patterns. In other words, the Middle Way.

There is a chart on page 181 of Buddha’s Brain that shows the range of neurological diversity in three aspects of attention: The capacity to hold onto information, the ability to update awareness, and the desire to seek stimulation. We used this chart in class to identify where we are in the three different aspects of neurological diversity. This recognition can help each of us to both accept and challenge our tendencies.

Acceptance of something in our nature does not make us a slave to it nor does it give us a permission slip for unskillful behavior. In fact, acceptance opens us to become more aware of the tendency and to see how it impacts our lives and the lives of those around us. Seeing it as innate, we can let go of any guilt or shame around it. We were born with it, we didn’t create it. If we recognize a way in which it as a product of the culture in which we were raised, or as a product of a specific experience or set of experiences in our own lives, we can see the tendency and its roots more clearly. Beginning to see the workings of our mind, our way of being in the world more clearly, with less sense of having to defend ourselves, is a welcome breakthrough. So Hanson’s chart is a useful tool for exploration.

One thing I’ve noticed in exploring this chart and identifying my own tendencies is that they are really just tendencies. The highs and lows are places I might go if I am tired or feeling overwhelmed in some way, or if I go through a period where I’m not keeping up a meditative practice, as one time when I was traveling – I could literally watch my tendencies unravel and reveal themselves anew.

In class, one student said, and others agreed, that given certain circumstances she has at one time or another experienced all the extremes on the chart, from the obsessiveness to concentration fatigue in the category of ‘Holding onto Information;” from distractibility to obliviousness in the category of “Updating Awareness;” and from hyperactivity to lethargy in the category of ‘Seeking Stimulation.”

(If you do not have this book and don’t feel able to purchase it at this time, email me and I will send you a copy of the chart to make this discussion more meaningful for you. I would not feel comfortable publishing it online, since it is not mine to do. However, I do feel comfortable, when teaching from the book, sharing an excerpt with my students, and I think Rick Hanson, as a meditation teacher, would agree with that.)

Another student was bothered by the fact that all the terms in the high and low range in each category were pejorative: “Over-focusing, Thrill seeking, Fixed views, etc.” while all the moderate terms were positive: “Good concentration, Mental Flexibility, Enthusiasm, Adaptibility.” She asked what was wrong with the term ‘adventurous’ instead of thrill seeking. She has taken on the assignment of finding other less negative terms that might suit. I agree there is room for ‘adventurous,’ but perhaps it is in between the high and the moderate. We all know from our own experience that operating at the extremes is not just an interesting variation of character trait; it can actually be destructive or dangerous. A thrill-seeker can use poor judgment in pursuit of a challenge. A tendency toward apathy or stuckness can also be suicidal. So I think it is reasonable that these terms exist at each end of the spectrum.

One of the main benefits of meditation is to bring us into this more moderate range where we find we have good concentration, mental flexibility, enthusiasm and adaptability more of the time. This is the Middle Way. It comes as a surprise and relief to find that while tendencies toward being obsessive or experiencing concentration fatigue, distractibility or obliviousness, hyperactivity or lethargy are not unusual, we are also not locked into them forever. They are just tendencies. They don’t define or confine us.

As we become more aware of a tendency in ourselves or in others — children, employees, students, patients — we can see the tendency for what it is, letting go of harsh judgments, and we can see how it might be put to good use in career choices, for example. Being over-focused is a quality we might want in our accountant, for example. Knowing tendencies helps us adapt information sharing to a tendency-related learning style.

Acceptance of these tendencies and working with them is great. But we can also challenge our tendencies. According to Hanson, the brain is malleable. With practice in the areas of awareness and focus, the brain develops new ways of seeing and being.

If you have the book, look at page 181 and look over this chart in each of the three columns and make note of any that you recognize as yours.

Choose one tendency that resonates with you the strongest right now to be your focus for inner exploration over the coming weeks. Just make this choice intuitively and quickly, without worrying if it is truly accurate, or only true to a slight degree. If it resonates in any way, just take it. It’s just an exercise.

Your practice will be to notice how this tendency impacts your life. When you notice yourself reacting to a situation, pause to consider if and how this tendency is involved.

You might want to jot down these examples as they arise to get an even clearer picture of what goes on. This is the path of insight that provides incredible opportunities for growth through inner exploration. You don’t need your Sherlock Holmes outfit. You don’t need to do any inner historical survey of past behavior. Just stay present, and when something resonant comes up, make note.

Due to these neurological variations, each of us learns and works in different ways. As we’ve seen in our class over the years, each of us finds we respond better to different ways of practicing meditation. That’s why in leading the meditation in each class, I am always offering new ways to explore how we can each best maintain alertness and stay present with whatever arises. Over the course of the past few years, each meditator has had the opportunity to develop a toolbox of techniques that work for her. There is no one right way to meditate that will be effective for every individual. And this chart clearly shows us why that is so.

Lest you feel resistant to the idea of inner work or transformation, let me just share this example of inner transition that has nothing to do with meditation, but captures the spirit of doing inner work:

A few years ago, a friend of mine would be exhausted after reading a few pages of a book. Today he finds reading enjoyable, sometimes addictive. How did this change happen? He didn’t force himself to read. He simply challenged his assumption that he couldn’t do it. He gave himself the opportunity to read on a regular basis, stopped when he got tired, and over the course of time found that, without efforting, just by providing himself with regular opportunity, he became an enthusiastic reader, able to maintain attention and read multiple chapters, when before he would burn out after a few pages.

This is how we develop the ability to meditate. It’s really just a matter of being willing to show up on a regular basis. We don’t force ourselves, but we offer ourselves the opportunity. Again and again. And eventually, we find that the practice becomes easier and more nourishing.

Since we are individual in our tendencies, each of you is invited to request a one-on-one session with me occasionally to discuss how meditation is going for you, and get help with refining your practice to better meet your needs. Some of you have done this and say it has transformed your practice. This is offered to both regular students and to blog readers. It is offered on a dana basis, as are the classes.

Okay, back to the book. Buddha’s Brain is chock full of really valuable information, but because it has no index, I’ve experienced some frustration in doing research. “Now where did I see the bit about the basal ganglia?” etc. What I have not found in my searching is specific meditation style recommendations for each of the extremes in all three categories, only general recommendations standard in any book or class on meditation. If it’s in there, I haven’t found it, because, did I mention there is no index?

However, over the years of meditating and teaching meditation, I have had a lot of experience in fine-tuning the practice to many personality types, though I haven’t before labeled them in just this way. So I will attempt here to provide some suggestions for each extreme.

In each case, I think it is valuable to first find a practice that works with the tendency, and then a practice that would challenge the tendency. Working with the tendency makes it more likely to become comfortable and regular in meditative practice. Once the practice has become a regular part of life, then experimenting with ways to challenge the tendency will help bring us into the Middle Way.

So I will use the neurological diversity aspects defined in Buddha’s Brain, providing specific meditation suggestions for each extreme. These are just suggestions. Feel free to come up with your own as well.

Holding Information
High – Obsessive, over-focused
With this tendency, following the instruction to stay focused on one object – the breath, for example – seems quite easy. We may not see what all the fuss is about. Or we may find that we cannot shift easily into meditation from the particular thought we have been focused on. In this case we can practice different means of gently but firmly setting the thought aside for now. This might be simply reminding ourselves that the thought will be available to focus on after meditation. Or if we don’t want to return to it, we can simply focus on holding the thought with warmth and compassion, encouraging our awareness of it to be more all encompassing, able to see it as just a thought, not intrinsic to our being.

Hanson doesn’t use the word perfectionism here, but I can’t helping thinking obsessiveness is the need to make everything perfect in some way. To challenge this tendency we might focus on relaxation techniques, letting go of any sense of goal or accomplishment, sending metta to ourselves, bathing ourselves in complete acceptance, and practicing creating a spacious mental field for thoughts to arise and fall away without such focused attention. I would also encourage walks in nature with special attention on the ‘imperfections’ and how totally acceptable and natural they are, perhaps even bringing home a sample of such ‘imperfection,’ like a gnawed on leaf, and let that be a point of focus and potential insight.

Low – Small working memory, concentration fatigue
Keeping instruction clear and simple is key. Here is my three part easy to learn practice, using the three key words: tension, intention and attention. Whenever you notice the mind has wandered, bring your awareness back to the body, releasing any tension that has built up.

Then set your intention. I find this works best by feeling the support of the earth beneath you and pulling it up throughout your body on an inhalation, especially feeling it coming up the vertical channel of your spine (giving yourself some backbone). If it helps, think of how the Buddha touched the earth, saying ‘the earth is my witness.’ Imagine the earth supporting you in your practice. It is not unreasonable to think the earth does want us to become more in tune with the nature of things, to be more open hearted, compassionate and clear seeing. Let that support firm up your intention.

Then focus the attention on the breath or another sensation. Meditate for very short periods at first, then gradual increase the length of your meditation over time, thus challenging this tendency and developing an ability to concentrate.

Updating Awareness
High – Porous filters, distractibility, sensory overload

If we are easily overwhelmed in meditation by thoughts, or find guidance by a teacher to be too much, we need to find a strong anchor within our meditation that we can return to again and again. This anchor can be the breath, or it can be a phrase that we repeat when our mind wanders.

It could be a single word. I find the word ‘or’ to be incredibly powerful, because wherever my mind has wandered, I can always answer my thinking mind with the phrase ‘…OR I could focus on the breath.’ It helps me to know that there is this solid option. This option oriented word actually works with the distractible mind, giving it the feeling of a multitude of options, while really gently but firmly encouraging a narrowing of focus to the important task at hand: staying in the present moment.

Through practice, the miasma of thoughts becomes less overwhelming. The tangle becomes more spacious and we can begin to see the source of the thoughts and the associative connections. Insights arise. Aha! It becomes more a sea of thoughts we can skillfully swim through with compassionate curiosity. With practice we may find we can keep our head above water for longer and longer periods, or even mount a surfboard with which we navigate the waves without getting dunked in them, aware of the sea of thoughts rather than drowning in it.

Low – Fixed views, obliviousness, flat learning curve
With this tendency we might not be open to meditation at all. If we are, we have a clear idea of what it is and what is required. Assuming we meditate, we begin where we are, taking advantage of any habitual tendencies we have. We set up our practice; we adopt the techniques that we believe in. We are not lacking in intention or dedication, so this part is relatively easy.

But we may well be lacking in ability to release tension, to relax, to open, to simply be. We may be lacking in compassion for ourselves and others. So within our practice, we challenge ourselves to really pay attention to bodily sensation and to relax and release muscular tension in our neck, jaw, shoulders or elsewhere. Throughout the meditation we can return to this task again and again, because the tension will build up again.

We can release tension even more effectively by developing soothing techniques, telling ourselves we are loved and lovable just as we are. We don’t need to be ‘right’ to be loved. We can begin to incorporate play into our meditation, experimenting with insights that challenge our need to know everything. We may begin to discover the joyous freedom of the Don’t Know Mind. We might experiment with concepts that are initially frightening to us, like No Self, which is really just challenging the idea of boundaries that keep us separate from the world around us, that lock us out of the richness of fully experiencing life. And as we explore the edges and the dissolving of edges, we might find ourselves allowing for the possibility of there being other ways to think about things that are equally as valid as our own. We might let go of the need to convert others to our way of thinking. We might develop a curiosity about all the variations and develop a thirst for learning that surprises us.

Seeking Stimulation
High – Hyperactivity, thrill seeking

If we need a lot of stimulation, then we give ourselves that by using a technique that is very active – chanting, counting, repeating a mantra, etc. But eventually, once we have an established practice, we want to begin challenging our tendency. In this example, we might challenge ourselves to find a sensation we can become curious about, really noticing the variations in our breath, for example. We could do some combination within a meditation period, starting with what’s easy and introducing what’s more challenging for increasing periods of time.

Low – Stuckness, apathy, lethargy
This tendency has relaxation down pat. But we may find ourselves sleeping a good deal of our meditative practice. We want to be sure to practice at the time of day we are least likely to fall asleep. Using our tendency, we can really sink into the senses in our body that capture that lethargy. We can focus on loving-kindness, feeling ourselves wrapped in a sense of warmth and kindness. In this cocoon that is a safer version of the cocoon we are already in, we can begin to investigate the subtle sensations, thoughts and emotions that arise.

As we become more practiced at creating this sense of loving kindness, we can expand it, sending it out into the world, developing a greater capacity to reach out, connect and care. As we do this, we empower ourselves, and that sense of empowerment offers us strength and clarity. Eventually we are ready for greater challenges, and we bring in concentration practices.

After this talk we had a good discussion, stimulated by the following questions:
Do you see your own patterns in each of the three categories on the Buddha’s Brain chart?
What techniques are in your meditation toolbox that have been most useful?
How does the technique that works best for you reflect your tendencies?
How does it challenge your tendencies?

As we meditate on a regular basis, we may begin to come into balance, finding our own Middle Way.

The Lasting Value of a Meditation Retreat

Last week we talked about the Three Refuges, ‘The Triple Gem’ of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, or as Rick Hanson in his book Buddha’s Brain calls them: teacher, truth and community. I shared how on a Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the gathered retreatants ‘take refuge’ formally by repeating a call and response chant the first evening before going into silence for the course of the retreat.

On a retreat this sense of refuge is palpable. Physically we are in a land apart from the hustle and bustle of normal life. No crowded noisy streets, no driving, no television, no telephone, no radio, no computers, no music except perhaps some evening chanting. No shopping. No reading. No writing. Just our own bubble of experience within the calm of a community in silence.

We are on retreat not just from busy-ness of our regular lives but from social interaction as well. We neither speak nor have eye contact with one another. We don’t need to think of the right thing to say or smile at someone.

There are many courtesies within this silence, but they are done synchronistically, needing no involved interaction. The only exception is during some yogi jobs that require teamwork and during short group meetings with a teacher, just to check in and see how we are doing. There are yogi jobs that require no interaction, and most teachers will respect your silence if you wish to maintain it in meeting, as long as they can sense you are okay.

This silent spaciousness to simply be can feel lovely or scary at various times throughout the retreat. Non-interaction is especially freeing for those who are compulsive talkers and interactors. Sometimes it’s a difficult adjustment, but mostly it is a deep and rich release, all the more profound for the contrast.

While silence does not free us from any interior turmoil that might arise, it does give us a lot of space in which to notice it. It’s similar to the way the refrigerator’s hum is hardly noticeable during the day, but in the middle of the night its sound is amplified. On retreat there is a lot of time to sit and walk with whatever arises, and a lot of support to stay with the experience, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.

Usually by the end of a retreat the mind is clearer, the heart is softer, and the body is healthier. Having taken refuge in this safe environment that demands so little of us except to sit, eat, walk and do a yogi job for less than an hour a day, we settle in to ourselves and gain greater insight into the nature of our existence in this body at this time.

Most likely, having had a powerful positive experience on retreat, we set our intention to carry that clarity of mind and openness of heart out into the world, to give ourselves sufficient time to really meditate, to eat slowly with great appreciation for all who contributed to the meal from the sunshine and seeds to the cashier at the market to the cook, and to walk in nature at a pace we can really see, hear, smell and feel connected to the natural world.

We set these intentions and maybe to a certain degree we can keep them. We might come home and establish a more consistent meditation practice if we didn’t already have one, or renew our dedication to our existing practice, having seen how valuable it is. And at least for a while hopefully we are able to carry over some of that deep rich interaction with the world around us that we had on the retreat.

But it would be most unusual to be able to sustain that deep inner calm and clarity for very long. Out in the world, back in the fray, we find ourselves mindlessly munching, chatting away on our cell phone, watching something we don’t care about on television, and walking or running right by the trees and the lizards who whispered all their secrets to us on retreat. Chances are we barely notice the song of the birds or the sound of the water, or even the feel of the ground under our feet.

So what was the point of going on a retreat? Was it just an escape with no sustained value?

For most of us the lasting value of the retreat is learning that we do indeed have the capacity to be present. If we have never been on retreat and if we find meditation challenging, then this inner discovery is crucial. Even though we may not be present in every moment of our lives, we now know that we can be present. We know what being present feels like. We have learned what elements help us to be present and on retreat we have had extended opportunity to practice them.

These helpful elements include:

  • Setting our intention to be present.
  • Slowing down.
  • Making space in our lives for a regular meditation practice.
  • Intensive concentration training that shows us how to be with whatever arises.
  • Wisdom teachings in whatever form we receive them best.
  • A community of supportive practitioners who remind us that being present is possible in every moment.

So what we take home with us, when we have broken our long silence, is the Three Refuges – the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

We take home the Buddha in the inspiration of the historical Buddha and his followers right down to our teachers sitting before us, exemplifying dedication to spiritual development, helping us to understand that we each have access to our own Buddha nature.

We take home the Dharma from the nightly talks when the teachers tell stories to demonstrate the dharma, drawing from their own life experiences, their own unskillfulness, their own mindless moments, for the benefit of their students; and from our group meetings with teachers and the answers they give us to our questions.

And we take home the Dharma from the teachings of the natural world as we walk or sit in silence, opening to its wisdom, its ready answers to any question that is rising up within us.

And often the sweetest of all, we take home the Sangha – the feeling of being supported by each other during the retreat, inspired by each other’s dedication to the practice, to staying with our experience even when it is difficult. This may sound odd since we are in silence and have no eye contact and are in our own little bubbles of protected space. But during the days of the retreat, as the silence, relaxation and safety sinks in to our beings, we increasingly feel our deep interconnection. We begin to understand how it’s possible for that flock of birds to move together as one being, turning in unison as they fly. We sangha members move not in perfect unison, but with spaciousness and natural courtesy that feels as if our personal bubble is an energy field, and we all sense the energy fields when they touch, so that our bodies don’t bump into each other. Which is good, because in silence you can’t say ‘excuse me.’ I remember when we were given an hour of practicing coming out of silence the night before the close of the last retreat I was on, and suddenly we were bumping into each other and saying ‘sorry, sorry’ all the time! As if silence was what had kept us in a cohesive sense of unity.

Afterwards, when the retreatants have gone to their homes all over the world, there is still this awareness that they are there, connected through this shared intention to practice being mindful in our lives.

And having felt the sweetness of the sangha on retreat, we find our sangha in the outer world. Though they didn’t sit beside us in the meditation hall, or across the table in the dining hall, or share a room with us in the dormitory, or walk back and forth beside us in the walking hall, still we know them to be our sangha sisters and brothers, sharing our intention to hold the world in an open embrace. We recognize them in their compassion, their supportive or inspirational energy, and their willingness to be present. A sangha is not a clique or a club that let’s you in under certain conditions or has the right to keep you out. It is, in its broadest sense, those people in your life who nourish you, who support you in your practice, even if they don’t know it.

So after a retreat, even after the serenity has lessened, we take home the three refuges. In our daily lives we are supported by them. They comfort us, inspire us and keep us as present as we can be in this moment. That is the long lasting gift of the retreat. And it is a gift not just to ourselves but to those around us. Taking this time for ourselves is an act of generosity to the world.

Taking Refuge

I continue to read Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, and I really appreciate learning the scientific findings of the value of meditation, how it “increases gray matter in the brain regions that handle attention, compassion and empathy.” He says that reports show that “It also helps a variety of medical conditions, strengthens the immune system, and improves psychological functioning.” This has certainly been my experience, and the experience of so many regular meditators I know, but it is fascinating to see the science of it. When I think of how often I was sick as a child and a young adult before I took up meditation, and how strong my immune system is now, according to recent blood work, I have to believe that meditation is a key reason. One of my students, upon hearing that I haven’t had a cold or flu in years said, “Just wait ‘til your granddaughter’s in day care!” She’s right. The health benefits of meditation will be put to the ultimate test!

Back in the 1980’s when I was an ad exec, I remember telling myself I was ‘too busy’ to do any meditative practice, even though I knew full well how nourishing the practice was for me. After a while I got so ill with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome that I had to quit my job and be flat on my back for the better part of the day for nine months! Who’s too busy now? I had to quit my job and one of the things I still could do was meditate. So I had myself a very deep and extended personal ‘retreat.’ I was very fortunate to have the practice in my life again, for I healed from this usually chronic and life long condition in record time. I’ll never know what part of my treatment effected the cure, but I know that my inner journey at the very least made me available for healing. Now reading the scientific finds, I can allow myself to give the meditation even more of the credit for my well being. And the inner journey resulted in the book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

There was a week in 2007 when we were buying our casa in Mexico and running around stressing out, feeling very deadline-driven, trying to get the house sufficiently furnished with diminishing funds before our return flight to the US, so we could rent it out, when I was suddenly stricken and bed-bound with a strange dizzy disease. Again, I had had ‘no time’ to meditate! So maybe the illness was just a note to self to slow down and return to regular meditation practice.

While I feel perfectly healthy right now, and have a strong meditation practice in place after being less consistent during our recent stay in Mexico, I am noticing that I have been feeling an incredible amount of physical pressure as I work towards deadlines on taxes and other projects. Sitting with it I notice that it feels like I am being ground and put into sausage casings! Ugh! But what a useful thing to notice. Another note to self.

So it was very helpful to me to come upon Rick Hanson’s mention of the Three Refuges. I realized that I have not addressed them in any dharma talk but they are so important!

They are important to me right now as I go through not just tax time but a period of transitioning back into the American way of life after the easy flow of Mexican living, and trying to be fully present at this time of holding great joy at the birth of my granddaughter and some worry at the same time as a close family member is scheduled for surgery.

When we are skillful enough to be able to hold both extremes of our current experience in an open hearted balance, the result is Upekka, the fourth of the Four Brahmaviharas, the heavenly abodes that are the precious gifts of the practice of meditation.

But what does ‘skillful’ mean? It means that instead of grasping at the joy and pushing away or avoiding thinking about the fear, we are simply aware of them, aware of the effects of them in our lives, our bodies, our thoughts and emotions. Skillfulness is making room for them to exist in our experience without over-dramatizing them, discounting them, getting lost in them, or using them as leverage to catapult some inappropriate behavior out into the world. Instead, through meditation, we create an interior spaciousness for all of our experience to be noticed and acknowledged. This is skillfulness.

When we do feel overwhelmed by what arises, we are encouraged to take refuge.

A person without the benefit of meditative awareness training might be more likely to take ‘refuge’ in things that lead away from mindfulness and potentially become addictive. Typical examples of this are going to extremes with eating, drinking, drugs, gambling, escapist books, computer games or chats, movies, television, computer, exercise, work, shopping, socializing, etc. When we pursue these extreme routes we literally lose ourselves in them, and thus we feel a temporary sense of relief from whatever is bothering us, whatever fear we are trying to avoid. But the route itself creates even more problems and doesn’t allow us to deal with and heal from the experience we are so desperately trying to avoid.

The Buddha advised taking refuge within the experience itself. It may seem counter-intuitive, but being with the experience is the most powerful healing tool we have. But how do we stay present with the experience if it is so painful? How do we cope with this sense of being overwhelmed or not in the driver’s seat of our lives?

We take refuge. Real refuge.

How I experience this in my body is easier to demonstrate than to describe. But I’ll try: Imagine a normal stance. Then imagine that you see a great weight coming your way that you will have to receive and carry. How do you adjust your stance? Well, a skillful adjustment would be to have a solid footing, then let your knees flex, your hips drop a bit, so your whole stance deepens, so that your arms rise up from your core when they open to receive and carry this extra weight. There is also an alert presence to changing conditions.

This is a good way to think about how we cope with emotional weight as well. A solid footing, greater flexibility, a deepening, and working from the core, and staying fully present for our experience.

The Three Refuges don’t talk about stance, but you can see how they too provide a solid footing, flexibility, deepening and staying present with the core of our experience. Perhaps you’ll see that too as we discuss them. Perhaps not. But here they are:

First we take refuge in the Buddha. We take refuge in the historical Buddha’s generosity of spirit, thinking upon how he shared his wisdom freely for forty years as a dedicated teacher. We take refuge in knowing about the struggles he went through, allowing ourselves to be inspired by his dedication to liberate himself and all beings from suffering. We take refuge in the fact that for over 2500 years in this tradition, and in many other traditions as well, there have been other awakened beings, and many practitioners and teachers from whom we can draw strength and inspiration.

We take refuge in the faith that, given all who have trod this path before us, we too have the seed of Buddha nature within us, the potential to wake up to this moment in every moment, if only we set our intention to be available for it’s wisdom to inform us. This is taking refuge in the Buddha.

Secondly we take refuge in the Dharma. Dharma is the Sanskrit word that means ‘truth’ or ‘the teachings.’ (In Pali it is dhamma, and even though the Theravada tradition is based in the Pali language, dharma is often used because it was introduced to the West earlier and it stuck, so either one is acceptable.)

Dharma is the recognition that suffering exists in the world, and in ourselves — the First Noble Truth.

It is the recognition that the cause of suffering is our grasping and pushing away — the Second Noble Truth.

It is the recognition that while pain is unavoidable, it is possible to not amplify the pain by the suffering we cause ourselves and others through our unskillfulness — the Third Noble Truth.

And it is recognizing that the path to skillfulness in overcoming suffering is The Eightfold Path: Right (or Wise) View, Intention, Mindfulness, Concentration, Effort, Action, Speech and Livelihood — the Fourth Noble Truth.

These Four Noble Truths form a solid foundation of Buddhist teachings. We take refuge in this solid foundation for our own exploration of the truth for ourselves in each moment.

Third, we take refuge in the Sangha. Sangha is the pali word for the community of meditation practitioners whose presence helps us to stay on the path, whose wisdom and insights in their own lives helps us to see more clearly when we are suffering or unskillfully trying to escape from the pain in our lives. Like the network of roots in a redwood grove, the sangha supports us all, allowing us to be flexible and resilient.

The Three Refuges are also called the Triple Gem or the Pali word tisarana.

At the beginning of each Buddhist retreat, the assembled retreatants together take these Three Refuges, in a chant. To see the chant, click here.

But we don’t have to be on retreat, the refuges are available to each of us in every moment, and it was so nice to be reminded as I was reading Buddha’s Brain, that this might be a time for me to take refuge.

If the Pali or Sanskrit words don’t resonate for you, or the Buddha isn’t your cuppa, it’s worth taking a little time to determine first of all, the inspirational figure whose wisdom and values you aspire to. This is not in order to be like them, but to notice and strengthen the resonant qualities in yourself through recognition and appreciation.

Accessing the dharma is to tap into the universal wisdom from which the dharma springs. During my almost year-long period of illness back in the early 1990’s, I meditated so intensively that I accessed this universal source of wisdom, through my own quirky lens, and chronicled it in my book long before beginning to study Buddhism.

So it’s not that Buddhism has the corner on the wisdom market. It’s just that it expresses it with such clarity, and has transmitted these teachings through millennia with great success at retaining the original message and inspiring us to look within rather than requiring us to trust blindly in the findings of others.

In different cultures this will take on different forms of expression, but there will be an underlying clarity of truth that brings forth compassion for ourselves and others, a sense of interconnection so that we know that we are not alone in the world, and how that brings both comfort and responsibility, and a willingness to be with whatever arises in the moment with an open heart.

So find the words of wisdom that speak most clearly to you.
Whatever teachings resonate truth for you, work with them in a state of curiosity. Question ‘Is this true?” and sit with the answer. Insight meditation is this active openness to exploration. It is this continual opening and exploring that keeps spiritual life alive. To simply memorize and spout words is not taking them in in a meaningful way. Certainly there are religious personages throughout history who insist that dogma be force-fed and taken on their word alone, but this is not the tradition that the Buddha taught. He taught his own findings along with the means for each of us to find out the truth for ourselves. His way was to empower each of us to find our way, rather than use his knowledge as power over others.

The third refuge, the Sangha, is the people in our lives who support our practice and our spiritual well being. It’s worthwhile to consider who those people are, so that when we are feeling overwhelmed and less able to make such considerations, we will have a ready idea of whom we might call upon to be a refuge in time of need.

When we ourselves are feeling overwhelmed is not the time to spend with those whose energy depletes us. When we are feeling more in balance, we can be there for them, of course. But for now, we send them metta, loving kindness, but take refuge in company that nourishes us.

I have heard it said that taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the only requirement to be a Buddhist. And although we’re not about ‘being’ Buddhists, but about studying Buddhist concepts and practicing Buddhist techniques for awakening, we can still see that this act of taking refuge is a valuable one, whatever words we use.

Curiouser and curiouser

I have been reading Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson because it’s the book my class read in my absence and I want us literally to be on the same page.

On page 60 he writes that the three processes of being with whatever arises, working with the tendencies of mind to transform them, and taking refuge in the ground of being, are essential practices of the path of awakening.

He says that as we practice we encounter certain stages of growth. The first is acting out unskillfully without even being aware of it, not even seeing how we are causing suffering to ourselves and others.

The second is noticing our behavior, our words, our thoughts and how they are causing suffering, but not being able to do anything able to do anything about them.

The third is being able to transform these thoughts or feelings midstream, so that they don’t get acted out. They still cause us suffering to a more limited degree, but we have not put it out into the world.

And the fourth is a level of non-reactivity, where the situation doesn’t automatically set off reactions that cause suffering.

As meditators we may recognize these stages as part of our own experience, because as we begin to meditate we create enough spaciousness to start seeing our own thoughts and behavior.

Hanson says the most difficult stage is stage two, where we first notice our unskillfulness but feel helplessly caught up in it.

This initial period of inner awareness can be painful! It can even stop us from meditating because we don’t want to see the truth of things. We would rather be oblivious! Who could blame us?

This is the value of having some guidance, if just to have someone assure you that it’s normal to have this reaction, to have these thoughts, to feel the shock, shame and disappointment to discover our own innate unskillfulness.

If we do stay the course, continuing to meditate, we may discover a softening of our hearts and an increase of patience, so that we can hold our flawed selves with more compassion. Having opened to this experience, having survived the initial shock of discovery, we find a willingness to sit with whatever arises with less judgment and more curiosity. It becomes less personal. Reading Hanson’s book with its physical explanations for why we are the way we are increases our ability to get how impersonal it really is!

But still, what arises, if painful, if frightening, can be difficult. These difficult thoughts, emotions and sensations, we can consider as dragons at the gate of the inner temple of our own awakening. This image has helped me over the years to recognize and value the experience of sitting with difficulty as a vital part of the spiritual experience of accessing the spaciousness within.

Instead of an extended talk, for this class I asked the students to take some time in the garden in walking meditation or sitting in contemplation, giving themselves the silence, the time and the attention to notice whatever arises. If you did not attend the class or did but would like to repeat this on your own, try this in a garden or park or out in wild nature.

As you walk at a slow pace, bring full consciousness to physical sensations of the body: the foot rising and falling, the breath, the air on skin, the sights and sounds. Whatever arises in the mind is to be noted for its tonal quality, whether it’s an emotion or a thought stream, whether it’s a judgment, a memory, a plan, etc. Some times you may just be caught up in the flower or the lizard or the patterns the leaves make on the deck or the sound of the waterfall. At other times a stream of associative thoughts or emotions will ensue. Whatever arises, bring as much awareness to them as possible, being curious. Notice how the mind does what it does, as if it were a lizard pumping in the sun. Give it as much of that kind attention as possible.

Afterwards give yourself the gift of a little more time to reflect on and internalize this experience before returning to normal activity.

The Pot Hole of Pigeon-holing

My new granddaughter is barely a week old and already she has been pigeon-holed and typecast. Her gender, weight and height have been duly noted and these facts have refined the perception of her parents, extended family and friends. Her physical features have been matched to known patterns. She has her father’s brow, her mother’s ankles, and her great-grandmother’s cheeks.

Like any other mammal, the human is biologically driven to devote itself to its offspring, and the initial ritual of sniffing and checking out to make sure that this offspring is in fact its own, is a natural part of the process of claiming, making the novel and extraordinary understood and ordinary.

The ‘I don’t know mind’ has been tossed aside in the process. Nature abhors a vacuum, and humans abhor a vacuum of solid facts, strong opinions and pigeon holes in which to store them.

But, biological imperative aside, doesn’t that still leave room for this new life to be a wondrous mysterious unknown? Will everything she does in her first week of life have to go on her permanent record? Will all her efforts to come to terms with her environment, skillful or not, be brought up again and again to haunt her?

This is just the beginning after all. She will have a well-documented existence, with photographs, achievements noted in the baby book – whether she is early or late with the various stages of learning to hold her head up, roll over, creep, crawl, walk and talk. Each erupting tooth will be noted, each word learned will be remembered for how endearingly she mispronounces it.

I remember that Josh called a piano a plano and Katie called it a pinano. Josh got his first teeth at four months, Katie at fourteen months – both extremes noted and incorporated into the body of knowledge that attempts to describe their nature. His early teeth got him weaned off the breast earlier than was healthy, thus causing his allergies perhaps? Her late teeth had her used to swallowing food whole without chewing, and she is still a fast eater with indigestion. This is all part of the family lore that weaves a cozy family nest around those who passed that initial sniff test of acceptance into the fold.

But is this who we are? Are we the sum total of our report cards, our teachers’ and fellow students opinions? Are we, as studies often show, a product of our sibling placement, whether we’re the oldest, a middle child or the baby? Are we our grade point averages, our diplomas, our credentials or lack thereof? Are we all living under the weight of our accomplishments, our failures, our faux pas that did not go unnoticed, our favorite music, color, gem stone, animal, genre of book or movie, or our preferred style of dress or home décor?

Will this new life I have been holding in my arms as she sleeps, her dear little mouth and hands in constant movement, be plastered with so many labels she forgets who she is? Will she read the labels as directives of who she should be? Will she struggle to win the affections of her first grade teacher by conforming to the ideal of a good student? Will she struggle to win the admiration of her playmates by being funny or daring? Will she struggle to win the love of a young man by being sexy and willing? Will she struggle to win the approval of her employer by becoming her job title or by foregoing her own moral bearings for the company’s bottom line?

How will she know she is not all the labels put upon her? That she is more than her gender, her ethnicity, her nationality, her preferences, her foibles, her perceived strengths and weaknesses? If she is like most of us, she will come to believe that it is the labels themselves that those around her love. If she is like most of us, it is these very labels that she will love or hate about herself. She will be ready to name her favorite and most hated body parts for the degree to which they conform with those she sees in the media or the most popular girl in class.

Will she feel, as we often do, somehow lost in this naming process?

This is how life is. This is what we do for each other, whether we are parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, coworkers or friends. We mirror each other. Because it’s hard to see ourselves, we rely on the mirroring of everyone around us who, in their response to us show us if we are brave or cowardly, smart or dumb, interesting or dull, beautiful or plain, big or small, fat or thin, old or young, agile or clumsy. We do this in ways overt and subtle, through our words, our expressions and our choice of whom we spend time with and whom we avoid.

When we think about the Buddha’s call to practice Right or Wise Speech in our relationships, we understand the power of our words. In this mirroring process, where we in a word or phrase sketch the whole character of a person, we fall off the Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering. Not just the person we are describing’s suffering, but our own. We can feel this, the heartburn that follows a meal of labeling a person, claiming to know them, or to know how they must be feeling in any given moment based on causes and conditions. If a person is in mourning, we assume that in every moment they are in misery. When in fact every moment, every second, has a vast array of fleeting emotions and thoughts. When a person has a new grandchild, we assume that in every moment they are thrilled, euphoric, over the top deliriously happy. And even though these assumptions are not totally incorrect in both cases, they are not allowing for the person to be fully present with the actual feelings that arise.

Perhaps the person in mourning just enjoyed a lovely conversation with an old friend or just took a walk in nature, and in fact was not in that moment caught up in a sense of loss. Perhaps the grandmother had just received news that a friend’s husband had died, had just discovered that her credit card had been used on a spending spree in a foreign country, or was worried about another family member’s health. So even though she is totally over the top thrilled beyond belief at the gift of this new life, it is not for any one else to name or claim to know how she is feeling right now.

We have all experienced this sense of disconnect when someone says, “You must be so…fill in the blank: thrilled, devastated, heartbroken.” And yet our need to label and pigeon hole is very strong, so we find ourselves doing this as well.

When we thrust this pre-determined appropriate emotional response to a situation on those around us, we give the other person the clear message that that is how they should be feeling, leaving them no room to say how they really are feeling. Then they may have a sense of failure or shame of somehow not living up to expectations of others because the named emotion is not the predominate one in this moment.

This is just something we say. It’s the accepted expression of love and concern in our culture. So when we recognize it we don’t have to make ourselves wrong. We can just acknowledge that it’s a product of this need to label, to known, to make connections, to organize the untidiness of life into some semblance of order.

But if we truly want to end suffering for ourselves and others, we can look at it from the standpoint of Right Speech. And what are the three guidelines to determining right speech? The first is “Is it true?” How does this assumption of a particular emotion or this assignment of a particular trait hold up under the light of the truth test? Not very well, we have to admit. Because the truth is that we don’t know. We can’t know how a person is feeling about any given situation. Bringing our assumption into it is not truth, it’s just assumption. Often the truth is that we don’t know. But how often do we believe that? Not often enough!

The second guideline is “Is it useful?” Not really! If it makes the person get caught up in comparing mind instead of being able to stay present with their own experience, that’s not useful at all. In fact, it’s obstructive, veering them off their present course into a quagmire of confusion and emotional discord.

Is it timely? No. Since in every second a person has a panoply of emotions, hitting the mark on naming just one is more chancy than roulette.

So must we always be watching what we say? While awareness of what we say is useful, watching it as if on a fault-finding mission will simply create suffering. Instead, we give ourselves the gift of slowing down, being as much in this moment as possible, and allowing our natural curiosity, compassion and love to guide us. The words that arise out of that state are less likely to be habitual, more likely to be in tune with whatever is going on.

In this state we have less urgency to label and file our experience, feel less rushed to get on to the next exciting thing. Unrushed, we settle down and sink into the experience itself, without the need to label or draw conclusions. We can relax into not knowing, and not needing to know. We can simply be present.

This is just one example of how this labeling process goes on way beyond the realm of report cards and early defining of characteristics. We are constantly providing each other with feedback. But is this feedback accurate? Each of our perceptions are distorted by our own associations and interpretations, our own misperceptions based on feedback we have received from a whole league of equally unreliable sources. What is received may have some truth in it but is not a clear reflection.

This labeling process is like being trapped in a fun house with hundreds of wavy mirrors giving us faulty information about who we are. So the question is not which mirror is correct, or what is the cumulative adjusted equation of all this provided information. The question is: which way out of the funhouse?

Meditation provides a door out of the fun house. By coming into awareness of physical sensation, we access this present moment. In full awareness of this present moment, things can get very simple. Very clear. A spaciousness arises that makes room for the tangle of distortions to be seen, known, examined and perhaps eventually released.

When we talk about No Self, (a concept that this class came upon in studying the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson while I was away and has asked for clarification) we are talking about letting go of our attachments to the labels we have been given in our lives. Last year I read to you something I wrote in 1995 called The Dance of the Seven Veils. Since you have been meditating for so much longer now, I will read it again, to see if it answers any questions about this concept of No Self.
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The Dance of the Seven Veils
An exercise in letting go

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements, your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. The title you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the guilt you bear, the pain you have suffered. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationships with others. Your roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, employee, employer, citizen. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs. Your religion, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you. Let them go.

The fifth veil is the you that is defined by your physical, emotional and psychological traits. These are what you were born with: your gender, your race, the fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your body’s very existence. It is your perception of your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.
Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind. It is the you that maintains resistance, through fear, in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are One. One with all that is, a manifest expression of the joy of oneness, undefined thus unconfined, free, expansive, beyond the beyond. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment.

Now as you dress in your veils, lovingly drape yourself with these manifest expressions of self, full of richness, full of clues. But never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic you, merged with the all that is, with God beyond personification, you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.
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You’ll notice that we remove the veils and then we don them again. After seeing the truth that we are not the veils, we can wear them more lightly. Instead of a constricting straight jacket, these labels weave together to make a filmy gown that gives us freedom to dance playfully. We can don the labels with which the world defines us and know that this is just part of the experience of living this existence, but it is not the be all end all of who we are. Who we are is both much more complex and more simple than all these labels would have us believe. Who we are is not how we measure up in possessions or accomplishments or strengths or interests. Who we are is not attached to our stuff, our relationships, our beliefs or our preferences, but our moment by moment experiencing of this gift of consciousness and the spaciousness of not knowing. We can relax and dance in the mystery.

We don’t know much of anything and, as we discussed last week, that is a very liberating acknowledgment. Our brains are busy trying to assess and assimilate information from current conditions and past experience, trying to find a match, so we can plaster a label on it and file it away, because without an efficient filing system, we get easily overwhelmed.

But maybe not all information has to be assimilated and assigned a file drawer. Maybe we can just let ourselves float a bit in the moment and allow our curiosity to run free and our file clerk to take a much needed vacation on a white beach with balmy breezes.

This is the gift of meditation: A step back from the fray of needing to get caught up in the thick of the sniffing, checking and labeling. To just be open to what is.

Through meditation we relax into the mystery a little more, and become more fluent in the language of the I Don’t Know mind. It is the most beautiful language of all, for allowing what is to retain its mystery is a great gift. Allowing ourselves and others to simply exist without labels or expectation grants a certain gracious gratitude for life as it is, however it is – a mysterious gift we are continuously unwrapping in no hurry to end the experience.